The Origins of Slavery

Michael Guasco

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online May 2010 | | DOI:
The Origins of Slavery

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  • History of the Americas
  • European History
  • African History
  • History
  • Regional and National History


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Slavery predated European forays into the Atlantic world, but the system that developed during the 16th and 17th centuries was a more exploitative, inhumane, and racially tinged institution than anything that had previously existed in Europe, Africa, or the Americas. The European conquest of the Americas and establishment of colonies was profit oriented. Indigenous peoples were initially preyed upon for their labor in the Caribbean and throughout the Americas, especially in the silver mines of Mexico and the Andes. Bound European laborers were also employed by the thousands, particularly by the French and the British in their West Indian and mainland colonies, where they were used primarily as plantation laborers. Historians agree that a combination of factors (most notably the deaths of Indians from epidemic diseases and the expansion of labor-intensive plantation agricultural enterprises, especially sugar cultivation) led to the decline of these earlier forms of bound labor and the emergence of a new predatory system of slavery that relied on bound African laborers. The unwillingness or inability to treat white Europeans in a slavish fashion also encouraged Europeans to look elsewhere for a labor force that could be totally dominated and compelled to serve the needs of the labor-starved American planters. Though it began in the 16th century as a relatively small-scale enterprise, the transatlantic slave trade erupted in the 17th and 18th centuries to satisfy the demand for human beings to cut cane and tend the sugar mills in Brazil and the West Indies, to work the tobacco fields and rice paddies of North America, and generally to perform the often backbreaking and dehumanizing tasks that Europeans were unwilling to do themselves. The specific labor regimes and legal systems that developed in different parts of the Americas varied greatly, but everywhere Europeans came to agree that African peoples were uniquely valuable commodities whose labor, as slaves, was integral to the wealth and power of both Europe and the emerging states in the Americas.

Article.  8422 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; European History ; African History ; History ; Regional and National History

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